[audio:altus-pros-columba.mp3]
Click score for printable version

Click score for printable version

Click score for printable version

Click score for printable version

Of the Altus Prosator Jane Stevenson writes: ‘The poem is outstandingly ambitious in its content: the twenty-three stanzas begin with God and the Creation, and end with the Apocalypse. No other Hiberno-Latin poem has anything like its range and originality. Two long hymns in the seventh-century Antiphonary of Bangor offer a possible point of comparison: `Audite omnes’ and `Precamur patrem’. The first is given its shape by recounting the life and work of St Patrick, and the second, more ambitiously, moves from an account of the crossing of the Red Sea to the life of Christ, utilising the natural and metaphorical senses of the word `light’ as its central image.

`Altus prosator’ describes the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity to each other, the relationship of God to the universe, the place of sin, how the `machina mundi’ was set up, how it works, and how it will end, ranging through the Bible from end to end (Genesis to Apocalypse) for its material. It compresses into its twenty-three stanzas all the most essential information about the world, as an early medieval Christian saw it.

In that sense, it may be classed as a didactic hymn of a kind which is characteristic of the Gallican church, as I have argued elsewhere. The attribution of `Altus’ to St Columba goes back only to the eleventh-century vernacular prefaces in the two copies of the Irish Liber hymnorum; but it is still widely accepted as `probable’, though not, of course, certain.’